Cease-fire eludes Powell after meeting

Arafat demands pullout of Israeli forces

Sharon refuses to set timetable

Visits Lebanon and Syria today

Israel renews proposal for U.S.-led conference to settle remaining issues

April 15, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Arriving in a convoy of armored vehicles, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held three hours of "useful and constructive" talks yesterday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah but did not secure a cease-fire to end Palestinian attacks and Israel's invasion of the West Bank.

Powell followed up his talks with Arafat by meeting last night with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. They discussed "ideas on how to achieve what Israelis and Palestinians want: an end to the violence and moving forward on the political issues," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a written statement.

"We note that Israel continues to withdraw," Boucher said. "The secretary pressed for its completion."

Arafat and his aides insisted that Israel withdraw completely from the West Bank before negotiations on a peace settlement begin, while Israeli officials refused to commit to a timetable for the military to leave Palestinian cities and towns.

In talks with Sharon, Boucher said, Powell "stressed our serious concerns about the humanitarian situation, particularly in Jenin," where the Israelis razed a portion of a refugee camp.

Powell is scheduled to visit Beirut, Lebanon, and Damascus, Syria, today for talks to quell simmering violence on Israel's northern border, the scene of recent rocket attacks by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. The secretary of state is due back in Jerusalem tomorrow night.

U.S. officials and Palestinian negotiators are scheduled to meet today to try to stem the violence. After repeated attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian suicide bombers, Israeli forces invaded Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank on March 29.

Powell's appearance with Arafat under extraordinarily tight security heightened the drama as the diplomats entered Arafat's ruined compound, pockmarked by Israeli bullets and blasted by rockets.

Arafat, 72, had been isolated for nearly three weeks in three rooms, surrounded by Israeli tanks. Reporters accompanying Powell noted that the Palestinian headquarters was clean, electricity was working and that several rooms were air-conditioned.

Arafat appeared gaunt as he sat across a conference table from Powell.

"He is in high spirits," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said of Arafat, who offered Powell chocolate cake brought in by Norwegian representatives.

Powell accepted the cake and drank coffee poured from plastic containers, Erekat said.

Entrenched positions

But beyond the pleasantries, Powell delivered a stern message to Arafat.

The Associated Press, quoting a senior U.S. official, reported that Powell told Arafat during a 45-minute presentation that "the bombings have to stop, that it was a major barrier" to negotiations.

The Palestinians refused to budge from their position that Israeli forces must withdraw from the West Bank, where they say a destructive assault has ruined their government, ignited a humanitarian crisis and brought misery to civilians, particularly in Jenin.

Palestinian negotiators said Powell pledged to enlist the international community to help in rebuilding the ruined infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority.

"I think it is understood now that we need to see an immediate Israeli withdrawal," Erekat said. "Once withdrawal is achieved, we can take all the components of the negotiations."

An Israeli source said Arafat "is not ready for negotiations when there is a barrel of a tank at his window."

Israeli proposals

Meanwhile, the Israelis resuscitated an old proposal for an international conference to settle outstanding issues with the Palestinians. The proposed conference, to be led by the United States, would include Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Palestinian representatives, according to Israeli television.

Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said, "The Americans had taken this suggestion and would push forward."

The Israelis also sought a compromise to end the standoff at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, where up to 200 Palestinian gunmen, civilians and church clergy were holed up, surrounded by Israeli forces.

Gissin said those in the church who are accused of crimes would face two options: "Stay in Israel to face trial and justice, or leave the area for good and not face justice."

Gissin contended that "the people on the ground are willing to accept [the proposal]. It's Arafat who has to make the decision."

Tensions rose again in Bethlehem early yesterday after Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian in the church complex. Israeli forces said the man was preparing to fire at Israeli soldiers when he was shot at the Casa Nova Franciscan hostel. The man was taken into the church, where he died.

The Rev. Andrew White, a special envoy of the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, was involved in unsuccessful negotiations to remove two bodies from the church.

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